Michael Lewis let White House approve quotes for Vanity Fair profile

The New York Times
Michael Lewis allowed the White House to approve quotes for his profile in Vanity Fair of President Obama, Jeremy W. Peters reports. The article will go online at midnight Tuesday; Vanity Fair has a preview up right now with some admittedly killer quotes in it.

Lewis revealed the precondition of his access to the president at a public forum Monday, Peters writes.

What the White House asked to leave off the record, Mr. Lewis added, was usually of little relevance to his article anyway — like a discussion between Mr. Obama and his political strategists about their electoral strategy in Florida.

Mr. Lewis said there was one particularly moving exchange with the president that he wished he could have described in greater detail. But the White House nixed the idea, perhaps wary of having the commander in chief described as in tears.

Lewis played basketball with Obama and “was given a special lapel pin that designated him to the Secret Service as someone who was allowed to be in close proximity to the president,” Peters writes.

Peters brought the increasingly common practice of allowing sources to approve quotes into public view this summer.

Earlier: Ari Fleischer: Quote approval started with good intent | Politico’s Harris bothered by ‘quote doctoring‘ | AP doesn’t let sources approve quotes beforehandDan Rather: Quote approval is ‘a jaw-dropping turn in journalism’ | Jack Shafer, Karen Tumulty discuss quote approval

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lindenbergerconfidential Michael Lindenberger

    It’s important to know whether by “approving quotes” you mean the White House got to vet them, edit them, tidy them up, strip them of color — all practices revealed in Peters’ story earlier this year, and toxic to the practice of journalism. But case-by-case negotiations over what is and what is not on and off the record, especially in long-running conversations that stretch far beyond the scope of the story are very different. I think that happens all the time, and has happened.

    You ask a businesswoman, for instance, for an interview for a story about her leadership. She agrees but sets the ground rules — can I look at my quotes before you publish them? Most journalists would say yes. How could we refuse? “No. I am writing them down and you can’t see them till they are in print?”

    The rules ought to be clear — they can’t unsay something; can’t change it. Though, if something isn’t clear, they may want to talk to you about the topic again and be more clear. That’s fair.

    And it’s less common, but also sometimes legitimate, to agree that some things will be off the record. Who hasn’t had a long interview with someone at some point, and they say, “yeah i will answer that but it’s off the record.” If you are there to talk about the murdered wife, and the source is about to talk about the body out back “but off the record” you are going to say no. But If it’s not on point to what you are writing about — or, say, if it’s so personal you know you wouldn’t get it otherwise, it’s pretty common to say, “okay, shoot. I won’t use that.”

    Why would a journalist make such a deal? For one thing, it gives you insight into an area of the person’s life you might not have known to ask about. You can always come back later, whether it’s 20 seconds later or 20 days, and say, “You know you told me about the drug problems off the record, but I think they are really critical here. Can we talk about those for a minute.” All they can do is say no.

    Anyway, as always, context here is key.